The future is now and Sir Arthur Charles Clarke predicted it in 1964. For those of you who have trouble with math, that is 48 years ago. At that time, there were no fax machines, no copy machines, no office scanners, no overhead projectors (I can hear some of you say, “What’s an overhead projector?”), and no personal computers. Needless to say, it was also before the Internet, the Cloud, wireless access, smart phones, teleconferencing systems and virtual meeting spaces. Ah yes, it was also before Pong, so no digital games in 1964.
With this in mind, take a look at what Sir Arthur Clarke said and pay particular attention around 1:45.
Interestingly, although Sir Clarke sounds awfully British, he actually spent most of his life in Sri Lanka. At the time of taping his thoughts in the video above, he had been a resident of Sri Lanka for eight years. In fact, he emigrated there in 1956 and lived there until his death in 2008 (for those of you bad at math, that’s 52 years). So he must have dreamed of being able to have a more connected world. Hmmm…or maybe he was glad he could live in Sri Lanka away from intrusive work-related technology that the future held.
How the Air Medic Sky 1 team embodied the prediction
I actually got a hold of this video through my brilliant project manager/research coordinator, Veronica Marin, when she worked with me on Air Medic Sky 1, a serious game to train young doctors about patient safety. She thought the video was amazing because our team embodied Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions in our work. The project was a successful collaboration between Veronica as our project manager in Mexico, our medical experts in the Netherlands; game design and development in Colorado (VisionShiftStudios); and quality assurance in California with Russel Reiss.
Our international collaboration worked through regular weekly meetings over Skype and Oovoo, file sharing through Dropbox, online document sharing and updating through Google docs. While we paid to upgrade some of our accounts, most of these services were free! I accommodated the time differences in our schedules by working late so I could get real-time access to my colleagues. This was great for me because I’m a night person. The development team came over to work with us once and that was very nice. But I bet they probably wished they hadn’t come over after all. Their trip was perfectly timed with the eruption of the volcano in Iceland that led to almost a week of canceled flights in Europe. They were stuck here away from their families for an extended amount of time with their American dollars that didn’t buy much in Holland.
The best benefit of all was that I could work with the best people on our project without being limited by distance. I wanted to write about this topic here, also known as teleworking, geographically distributed teams and distance working; because I have met people who hesitate to have collaborators across large distances. I am here to say that it works. Here are a few tips to making it successful:
Don’t ask for trust but show hard evidence that you can be trusted. Instead of telling your team, “I was busy working on things today,” show them what you did and discuss its implications for the project. Our collaboration was productive because our team members didn’t ask for trust, they continually and consistently provided solid evidence of their work. That improved trust levels and communication process, not to mention the progress of the project. You can make this aspect of distance working work for your project.
Be very clear about expectations and timetables. Luckily, Veronica Marin was our brilliant project manager who put rules and boundaries around all of the meanderings of a very creative team. I think this was really key. You always knew she was going to follow-up with whatever you promised and make sure you delivered it on time in a very nice way. Now you can understand why I was motivated to collaborate with her even though she lived seven time zones away. If you have creative projects, you need a really effective person like Veronica to do the seemingly impossible job of creating rules, boundaries and limitations (she is the Cesar Millan of project management!).
For other tips, here is a nice article on managing geographically dispersed teams.
What didn’t work? The only thing that did not work well was the hospital’s internal finance system and the different bank rules between countries that made international transfers of payments from the Netherlands to our partners more often than not, an abysmal failure. The payments were officially supposed to take four weeks to process. This is already a very long time and rarely happened. It usually took between 6 weeks to 5 months to process. There was always a different reason for the delay that was very difficult to diagnose and this was very frustrating for both sides but mostly for the people waiting on their money. Hopefully, internal financial and international banking systems will embrace efficiency at some point. Perhaps that is asking for too much now.
So, I hope that if you haven’t worked with geographically dispersed team that this article will at least warm you up to the possibility of doing it. I hope it also gives you an appreciation of Sir Arthur Clarke. It was amazing how spot on he was. In the end though, he was dead wrong on one aspect of his prediction. He said that in the future a “man” could conduct his business almost anywhere, independent of distance. Clearly, a woman can too!